FOUL WEATHER, A FORTRESS of a building and a tunnel. That's this town.
First, the weather.
For each of the past two winters it has snowed at least 36 feet. Feet, not inches.
Bill Coumbe, the mayor, will still tell you he moved here for the climate. Life beneath several fathoms of snow is a blessing after the Arctic cold of Barrow, nearly 700 miles north, where the highlight of the spring thaw is "you get to find out if that glove you saw all winter has a hand in it."
Besides, nestled here on the western edge of Prince William Sound, nearly shut off from the rest of the world by mountains and water--and foul weather--people have found comfort in one large building that is home to nearly the entire town.
The building is called Begich Towers, a 14-story monolith and a model of drab Army efficiency, rising like an urban transplant amid the town's rail-yard waterfront. City Hall, the Country Store, the U.S. Post Office and Cabin Fever Cures, a combination video store and tanning salon, all sit on the first floor.
It invites hibernation.
"We had a woman--she's not with us anymore--who never went out of the building for five years and never went out of the tunnel in seven," said Coumbe.
The tunnel--officially the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel--has long been Whittier's lifeline to the rest of the world. In winter, when the ferry service isn't running, a train ride through the two-mile tunnel under a mountain is the sole avenue of access. It runs four days a week, with a single passenger car and a series of flat cars; folks sit in their cars and trucks for the slow ride through the tunnel, then about 10 more slow miles out to the Seward Highway.
For summer visitors who want in, the tunnel is the way to get boats and kayaks and hikers into the sound's intense wilderness. For winter-trapped Whittiots--a term used in only the best sense--it is a means of escape.
Imagine a narrow pipe, a screwed-down carburetor limiting the influence of the outside world on Whittier's insular life.
That will change June 7 when an $80 million project led by the Seattle office of Kiewit Construction opens it to car traffic, making it the longest driving tunnel in North America.
One of the most secluded villages in America will become one of the most overrun. If you think the battle against suburban sprawl has any chance of succeeding, look upon humble Whittier, and despair. The well-metered summer influx of 200,000 train and tour-boat summer visitors is expected to more than triple, then rise over the coming years to 1.5 million. About 1,200 cars a day will clog the town's few miles of streets.
Thousands of people, one public restroom. You do the math.
"It's going to be great to sell the rights to the satirical play," said Carrie Williams, former city manager who had been point-person for the town's preparations, speaking just days before she was fired.
Outside of Whittier's 250 or so residents, the concern is for Prince William Sound. Environmentalists are warning that the new deluge of boats and people driving the 60 miles from Anchorage could have a worse impact on the sound than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Whittier owes its existence to the fact that, for most of the year, it's an awful place. In winter it snows almost constantly. Snowbanks routinely block the view from first-floor windows.
Residents insist this is all redeemed by a good summer day, when five species of whales are rising in the sound and the horsetail waterfall high behind Begich Towers is blown upward by the wind.
But such days are rare; the town gets 57 inches of rain in summer. That's about 20 inches more than Seattle gets in a year.
It was good to be cloaked in snow and rain during World War II, when the U.S. Army wanted a port the Japanese would have a hard time bombing. The Army bored a rail tunnel beneath 4,050-foot Maynard Mountain and used Whittier as the primary debarkation point for cargo and troops of the Alaska Command. After the war, the Army continued to use Whittier as an ice-free, deep-water port, building Begich Towers and the Buckner Building to house troops and support staff.
In its day, the Buckner was the largest building in Alaska, "a city under one roof," housing a hospital, a dental office, a theater, two rifle ranges, a post office, a bank, a hobby room, a bowling alley, a barbershop and a cafe. It served more than 1,000 people. Sam Gimelli, an Anchorage real estate agent who has tried to sell it, said it has more than a quarter-million square feet of space.
After the Army departed in the 1960s, the Buckner was left to vandals and the occasional hibernating bear. It now looks like a broken-down prison--one of the uses proposed for it--with mottled gray walls, broken windows and a massive blanket of untended snow.
With the Army's departure, the town regrouped inside the other big building, the Begich, which was converted into a warren of private condominiums with plain walls, pink-tiled bathrooms, large windows and polished hallway floors. Each of its 198 units is an island unto itself, retooled by each owner into a refuge that transcends the wilderness outside the windows.
June Miller, who runs a bed-and-breakfast on the top floor, has one unit outfitted in a 1970s time warp, complete with an eight-track player and Bobby Goldsboro's greatest hits. Lester Lunceford, interim director of public safety and one of three police officers in town, has crisp carpeting and overstuffed furniture from Anchorage, a computing center with a cable modem, and a home theater on which he watches Eagles concerts on DVD.
The joke on the summer tour boats is there are only two things to do in Whittier: get off the boat and get back on.
There are a few places to go: A Chinese restaurant and a deli sit on the waterfront; the Anchor Inn boasts a bar and an upstairs lounge.
But walking is perilous once the city plows and snow blowers have turned the streets into a white-walled, rutted maze. Begich residents venture out by car, even if it is just to go three blocks to the Anchor.
Such trips are rare.
"They stay in this building going nuts," said Brenda Tolman, who sells curios on the waterfront, makes the handcrafted signs around town, serves as the town's notary public, logs hourly observations for the National Weather Service and, in season, herds two reindeer as tourist magnets.
She took up removing snow last year, buying a $1,000 dump truck when the city truck took to bypassing her reindeer barn, a problem she blames on the town's politics. Hauling snow at $75 an hour, her new truck quickly paid for itself. She then bought a front-end loader.
"It's not my medium," Tolman said. "I can drive both of them, though."
Whittier, she said, is a "land of opportunity."
Not everyone agrees. It's more feast or famine, said Williams, the former city manager:
"Four months of T-shirts, and then the sidewalks are rolled up."
One in every five residents lives on Social Security or public assistance.
But everyone watches out for everyone else, whether they want them to or not. Lunceford, the police officer, was playing guitar along with the Eagles recently and decided to let his answering machine take a call.
"I know you're in there!" said the caller. "I can hear you playing guitar!"
Every now and then a resident will make a batch of POW T-shirts, as in "Prisoner of Whittier," but for some people that is taking the town's trademark self-deprecation too far.
"That's always been offensive to me," said Virginia Bender, 79, who came here from Portland, Ore., 24 years ago. "If you haven't got fare to ride the train out of here, I'll give it to you. Take the damn shirt off."
The train, and more specifically, the tunnel, is the only escape. That and death, because no one is buried here.
"I came here to work in a fish plant for two weeks and spent the next 10 years trying to get out," said Gary Carr, 52, who works in the Country Store by day and as a weather observer at night. Robert Wardlow, also known as "Cowboy," never left town until he died of cancer.
"He came back in a box," said Carr. "Here it is."
He reached behind the store counter and took down a copper-colored tin, its lid bent from when it was pried open to scatter Cowboy's ashes into Passage Canal.
The town's winter isolation is legendary. When the Good Friday earthquake struck in March 1964, it killed 13 of the 70 people living in town at the time. A resident walked out through the tunnel seeking help, saw none coming, and came back to say, "I guess we're the last ones alive in the world."
The winter trains run only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays. That means residents have to plan trips carefully just to visit a doctor or the Anchorage Costco, whose outsize muffins are a staple of rural Alaska.
"You have to go to Anchorage and stay in a hotel for days just to get your teeth fixed," said Larry Gilman, owner of a local boat service.
Tales abound of people desperately running the tunnel by foot, bike and car, risking the chance they'll meet a train.
"I met a guy in the Anchor Inn at 1 in the morning all covered with dirt," said Mayor Coumbe. "He was going through the tunnel and his flashlight went out. He fell a few times, tripped over a few things, but he made it."
In 1998, while workers were still converting the tunnel for automobile use, one resident drunkenly tried barreling through in a new Chevrolet Tahoe. He ended up getting high-centered on the tracks.
"If you stay for a week in Whittier, then you'll understand why we're building the road," said Jeff Brown, project engineer for the state Department of Transportation.
The city and state pushed for more than two decades to improve access to Whittier, with a 1993 study--one of at least 19--weighing a new tunnel, improved rail service or a mountain highway. Engineers settled on converting the rail tunnel for both car and rail use by laying down a roadway of concrete flush with the tracks.
It's an engineering tour de force. Fumes discharged by six jet fans will change the direction of airflow as the one-way traffic changes direction. Nineteen radar detectors and 49 closed-circuit cameras will let tunnel operators monitor traffic. In an emergency, four 300-horsepower portal fans would draw out fumes while trapped drivers and passengers seek refuge in the tunnel's eight "safe houses," equipped with benches, blankets, chemical toilets, fresh air and doors certified to hold fire at bay for four hours.
The Whittier City Council endorsed the tunnel by a 6-to-1 vote in the early '90s, but criticizing the project remains the best parlor game in town.
"I think it'll improve access," said Doug Maliski, the Whittier fire chief, "but from a public-safety perspective, it scares the hell out of me."
"I'm not sure of the impacts, but you introduce a lot of people to the last great coastal wilderness waterway and you figure it out," said Jim Brennan, a boat owner who predicts that parking will disappear on weekends.
One irony, environmentalists said, is part of the tunnel project has been paid for out of the state's settlement with Exxon over the 1989 oil spill. The environmentalists had tried challenging the tunnel project in federal court in 1996 but slowed it only temporarily.
Last month they renewed their efforts. In a letter to Gov. Tony Knowles, they said the increased development and traffic into Whittier comes as nearly two dozen species of fish and wildlife have yet to recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They asked Knowles to delay the tunnel opening until the tunnel is certified as safe, agencies develop a plan to protect Prince William Sound's wilderness and Whittier has the facilities and services to handle the onslaught of visitors.
With a $2 million budget, the town can do only so much.
That job had fallen for the most part on Carrie Williams, Whittier's outspoken city manager, who developed a triage system based on "the three Ps": parking, public safety and Porta-Potties. She joked about covering expenses by charging one fee to get into Whittier and twice as much to get out.
A lightning rod for criticism, she decorated her office with a human-shaped paper target on which she had written, "City manager, 25 cents per shot."
In April, the City Council gave her three months' pay from her $72,000-a-year salary and, without explanation, fired her.
The firing only added to the town's troubles, coming just two months before one of the biggest changes in local history. But Williams took it in stride.
Speaking to the Anchorage Daily News a few days later, she said, "It's really rude to fire someone on a non-train day."